I've decided to write my opinion down as a way to give you a little insight into what happens when dogs play off leash, and explain to you the psychological impact dog parks have on dogs.
As an expert in off leash dog play, I understand how important it is to ensure that the dogs that mix in an off leash group are all happy, healthy, friendly and social.
Many of you reading this are thinking, yup, my dog hits those 4 requirements, off we go to the dog park. Wait, wait, wait, I'm not finished. Above all of these four requirements is the number 1 rule - your dog must know how to play safely and in a controlled manner at all times.
I would be pretty confident in stating that no dog will play safely and in a controlled manner 'at all times'.
At Creedons Doggie Daycare over the past 4 years, to ensure the safety of all of our dogs at our play centre, we have told over 200 dog owners that their dog would not be a good match for off leash play. This is something that we are very proud of. Of course if we accepted these 200 dogs and allowed them to attend Creedons, we would be in a much better position financially, but the welfare of dogs in our care would suffer, and I wouldn't be able to hold my head up high.
Dogs are unsuitable for off leash play for a wide variety of reasons, the most common of which I will explain in further detail.
The shy pooch / fearful Fido
Often in a dog park environment a shy pooch with either display defensive avoidance behaviours - hiding, avoiding eye contact, crouching etc. , or may show offensive avoidance behaviours - barking at, lunging at, snapping at, or biting other dogs.
The shy pooch does not want to be in this environment.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the shy dog.
The Adrenaline Junkie
THIS DOG IS A LIABILITY. The adrenaline junkie often carries out these behaviours during their teenage phase, approx 6 - 12 months. Like our own moody teenagers, habits developed during the teenage phase are pretty hard to break.
The adrenaline junkie learns that this crazy play style is the most fun they can ever have.
Like the human adrenaline junkie who is never satisfied unless they are free falling out of a plane, the adrenaline junkie dog is also not satisfied playing doggie chess, but go straight to extreme play in an instant.
This looks like great fun for the dog. And it is. But, its not safe. Put in simple terms, when the adrenaline junkie (dog or human) is in their crazy fun state, they are using the hind area of their brain where reactive, impulsive behaviours are controlled. Ask someone jumping out of a plane to give you the square route of 144 - they can on ground, but when in 'adrenaline junkie' mode, they no longer think logically or use the part of their brain that controls memory, thinking and problem solving.
In the dog park, the adrenaline junkie is the dog that behaves in ways it would not normally behave. It knows in its learnt, logical brain not to bite other dogs, or that little fluffy dogs are not toys, but when in 'hind brain mode' these rules go out the window. This dog is likely to knock over a child / bash into a small dog / or bite too hard when playing, and is very much out of control.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the adrenaline junkie dog.
The barky, frustrated control-freak
The frustrated dog is also the dog that will bark at other dogs until they behave in a manner that the frustrated dog approves of.
The reason frustrated dogs are not suitable for group play is because there are too many factors that this dog cannot control, and frustration levels elevate.
The frustration leads to an increase in cortisol levels (stress hormone), and this elevated cortisol level will take at least THREE days to return to normal, which means a stressful trip to the dog park on Sunday is still effecting that dog on Wednesday, making them more irritable, reactive, and impairing their immune system for 3 days.
The frustrated dog will regularly hassle other dogs until they approve of their behaviour, which can be stressful for the other dogs, and can regularly lead to dog fights.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the adrenaline junkie dog.
The Hormonal Hound
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the hormonal hound.
The Prey Drive Dog
In a dog park environment, the dog that performs the chase - grab bite (and anything after that) can pose a massive threat. Once the dog enters prey drive mode, it can be quite difficult to interrupt and stop the behaviour. When mixing dogs in a high energy environment the prey drive dog is likely to set their eyes on another dog and chase. That targeted dog is then likely to run. The more they run, the more they're chased, the more they're chased, the more they'll run - vicious cycle of escalation!
When mixing big dogs with small dogs you will often see the prey drive behaviours exposed in the larger dog, and many small dogs have been killed by a dog with strong prey drive which is not being controlled properly.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the high prey drive dog.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the tornado dog.
Mr. Rude Dude
The rude dude either does not understand, or chooses to ignore, other dogs communication. Dogs are constantly communicating with one another through body language / facial expressions / vocalisation and pheromones. The rude dude ignores this signalling and does what he wants, when he wants. This is upsetting for the other dog and can often get him in trouble when he upsets the wrong dog.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the rude dude.
The torturer enjoys the squeal and excitement that comes with hurting other dogs. Play starts out innocent enough, gentle playing, then wrestling, then the torturer pins the other dog down for slightly too long and applies more and more pressure to the bite until the pinned dog panics and squeals. Luckily with my own dog we can see when she is in this mood, and we can give her a time out to calm down, but in a dog park environment, uneducated eyes cannot predict these behaviours and often the torture has escalated and occurred before humans realise and can step in.
I wouldn't let my dogs play with the torturer.
At Creedons Doggie Daycare we are going to trial an off leash play group with owners present. I am hopeful that with the co-operation and involvement of the owners that this can be a success, but it will take a lot of hard work, experienced staff, and management to keep the group safe and secure.
At our indoor dog park the whistle will be blown every few minutes. When this whistle is blown, all dogs must be put on leash, and asked to perform a few basic commands such as sit / down / paw etc. This will ensure that dogs are using their logical, problem solving part of their brain and we can make sure that they stay in control of their behaviours.
New dogs will first watch the play from behind a fence to understand what is happening here, and once in the play room will be observed on their first day, and if they play well they will be allowed join the dog park group more regularly.
I hope this explains why I would be opposed to a standard dog park, without highly trained staff and a strict enrolment criteria.